Letter from China: The history of heroes retold with tea leaves

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: July 19, 2007
BEIJING: On a recent slow news day, the modest item stuck out like the blast from the past that it was.
Out of nowhere, Lin Biao, Mao Zedong’s No. 2 during the 1960s, disgraced and largely forgotten, had resurfaced.
Marshal Lin had been canonized as a military hero in the war against the Japanese, and, mostly through sycophancy in the run-up to the Cultural Revolution, had won a place as the chairman’s designated successor.
Finally, he was judged a traitor, according to the Communist Party’s official verdict, following an airplane crash that killed him in 1971 while he was fleeing the country, after an alleged plot to assassinate Mao.
Suddenly, this relic of an era that feels more distant than the three-plus decades that separate us from these events was being given prominent display in the Chinese People’s Revolution Military Museum, in Beijing. The exhibit restored Lin to his place among the 10 giants of China’s revolutionary military history.
What did this all mean? If Lin Biao sightings are not altogether unheard of in China, an appearance like this was exceedingly rare. Was it the tentative start of his rehabilitation? Was it a volley in an obscure factional contest before a crucial party congress this autumn? Was it a largely unremarkable event, as some pretended? Or was it, as the curators of the museum said with straight faces, as press inquiries came flooding in, that this was an attempt to provide a more “comprehensive and objective” history?
Few things could be less certain than the last proposition. From beginning to end, Lin Biao’s history, like that of many of the great historical figures of what is called here “post-Liberation” China, has been massaged and embellished by the Communist Party’s keepers of the officially sanctioned truth.
Foreign historians, and increasingly their Chinese counterparts, too, say that Lin was neither quite the military genius he was made out to be at a time when a new revolutionary order was eager to enhance its legitimacy, nor was he ever quite the villain that the party made him out to be after Mao turned against him in 1970.
Indeed, Lin’s “plot” to kill Mao, if it existed, never got beyond the talking stage. He “probably knew next to nothing, or nothing at all, of the whole plot,” said Philip Short, a Mao biographer.
He Shu, the editor of Annals of the Red Crag, a party history magazine, said, “For a long time, historical studies or anything related to ideology have had to serve politics, to serve the purpose of propaganda.”
“When the political objectives are different, the propaganda is different, and social science goes along in accordance with the proper propaganda line. That’s not telling it as it is, that’s not real history.”
So why has Lin been returned to the revolutionary display case, and a spotlight, however narrow its beam, trained on him? If there are Chinese experts who know the answer to this question, so far they are not saying.
Whatever the intentions behind the exhibit may have been, for many experts, the Lin Biao matter reminds the world that however much China has changed economically, politically it remains relatively stuck in the past.
In the place of clear rules of power whose workings are regular, largely transparent and freely subject to coverage in the press and to public debate, China’s politics remain a universe of shadow plays and tea leaf readings, of combat through the posting of allegorical messages in often obscure publications and of history bent to the needs of the day.
Indeed, this point was made during the recent resurfacing of yet another disgraced political leader. A small but prestigious progressive journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu, lauded the all-but-invisible former party secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was dismissed and disgraced following the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, which ended in a deadly military crackdown. Unlike the hard-liners who prevailed, Zhao, who died under house arrest in 2005, had favored conciliation.
The authors who took the somewhat risqué step of hoisting Zhao’s banner openly did so in the name of political reform. The article asserted that corruption and influence peddling have become far worse in the period since Zhao and said that political reforms had “severely regressed.”
“Checks and balances of power are alarmingly lacking, the article continued, warning gravely that “the longer fundamental, substantial political reforms are delayed, the more likely unpredictable and insurmountable social unrest and political crises are going to occur.”
Du Daozheng, the president of Yanhuang Chinqiu magazine, denied that the article was part of any infighting. “If Lin Biao can be spoken about, why shouldn’t Zhao Ziyang be?” he asked. “After all, Zhao was member of party! So it is just normal for us to talk about Zhao.”
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